From Syria to Ukraine, Putin’s Policies Isolate Russia

August 28, 2013
Freight trucks queue on the Ukrainian side of the border. © Fotolia / motorradcbr

Russia’s isolation is growing by the minute. Yesterday I wrote that if the United States and its allies attack Syria, which is likely, then it will be a major blow to the United Nations which will have been sidestepped. Ironically, while Russia and its allies (Syria, Iran, China) often complain that the UN is a hostile place where world powers team up against them, the UN is also a supranational body that ensures Russia’s geopolitical influence. For more than two and a half years, for instance, Russia has blocked UN action against Assad. Russia has also ensured that the most powerful trade sanctions against Iran are coming from European countries and the United States, allowing China, Russia, and others to continue to trade with Iran. In other words, while Russia might be right that on some issues it has always been the outsider, it has also been given a powerful veto. Now that Russia has used that power so often that progress in the UN has ground to a halt, the rest of the world is abandoning the use of the UN. As I wrote:

If the United States continues to move away from using the United Nations as the final arbiter of international diplomacy, then this could be nearly the final brick in the new wall that Russia has built between itself and the West. Russia’s isolation would be one step closer to being complete.

Read the entire article: Syria – Another Brick in the Wall of Russia’s Isolation

Syria is hardly the only instance in which Russia’s foreign policy is increasingly isolating it from the West. Russia is in the middle of a trade war with Ukraine in an era where trade wars are a rare occurrence. Instead of turning towards the European Union, which it sees as an economic threat (particularly in the realm of oil and gas import diversification), it has chosen to strengthen trade with the Customs Union, a rival consortium that is Moscow’s own invention. The trade war with Ukraine is clearly one of the battlegrounds for this fight. As Ukraine has decided to join the EU instead of the CU, Russia is willing to hurt its own economic interests in order to spite Ukraine. As Ukraine’s trucks back up for miles in order to reach Russian markets, there is a clear economic impact to this – this trade war could cost the Ukraine more than $2.5 billion by the end of 2013. It is somewhat less clear how much this will hurt the Russian economy, though there will certainly be a negative impact. Still, Russia has spoken loudly with its actions – it would rather hurt itself in order to prove a point.

Russia might even be willing to use its anti-immigration policy to round up anyone with a Ukrainian accent, just to prove a point.

Is this the epitome of isolationism?

Several other reports push back on this narrative somewhat. The Carnegie Moscow Center, for instance, pointed out that the biggest losers in Ukraine’s moving to the EU are some of the oligarchs on both sides of the border who have been pushing the media stories that are driving the trade war. Andrew Weiss writes, “in Ukraine politics have a deeply entrenched habit of being a by-product of the agendas of well-placed individuals and vested interests.” As we’ve seen, the same is true in Russia, where even money laundering arrests are just a political cudgel, and where those on the good side of the Kremlin act with impunity, and where one of the the best ways to acquire wealth and power, fraud, hangs over the wealthy and powerful like Putin’s personal Sword of Damocles.

This narrative just further illustrates how Russia is charging towards isolationism. Because of this kind of corruption, entrance into the WTO has yielded few benefits. Russian protectionism has aggravated Western trade partners who are weary of Russia gaming the system for its own benefit. The Russian Customs Union has also proven to be a highly problematic alternative than the European Union, so it’s not like Russia’s economic isolationism is fostering a booming economy. Instead, Russia’s economy is flat or failing. All other considerations aside, it’s no wonder that Ukraine sees the European Union as a better option.

Russia’s problems don’t end there, either. It’s foreign policy is in shambles. Russia is still reeling with the loss of a minor ally, Libya’s Gaddafi, and the weakening of two more — Syria, and Iran. If the Syrian government did eventually fall to the opposition, the people of Syria have already sent a clear message that they are extremely angry over Russia’s ties with Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Losing Syria would also drive a wedge between Iran and Israel, a wedge that would likely be a strong ally of the Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. In other words, Russia has only lost strength since the popular uprisings of 2011, while, at least up to now, the United States has gained a friendly government in Libya, with the promise of another gain in Syria, while it has not lost any of its allies, even in a place like Yemen.

Russia did have an opportunity to build international rapport during the Sochi Winter Olympics. However, due to its repressive domestic policies, and its anti-gay laws that could target foreign athletes, it has squandered an opportunity to build trust. There is a growing chorus that either the Sochi Olympics should be moved or Russia should be blocked from participating in its own games. That is unlikely to happen, but Russia’s reputation in the West will only be hurt by what should be an opportunity to at least put on a good front.

And the day-to-day headlines don’t indicate that there will be any improvement. Just yesterday, Russia’s Izvestia newspaper published a story, translated by The Interpretersuggesting that Russia could stop making rocket engines for the American Atlas V, critical in such iconic space missions as the placing of the latest rover on Mars.

Russia is more isolated from the West now than it has been at any time since the Cold War. The “reset” was never really alive. But when The Interpreter‘s Sasha de Vogel said that Russian-U.S. relations were about to get worse, I’m not sure anyone had any idea that things would get this much worse this quickly.